BOB GARFIELD: These days the hottest media property among teenaged male demographic is the MTV program Jackass wherein each week a collection of skateboarders and daredevils put themselves in harm's way for the sake of putting themselves in harm's way. But as frequently occurs when dangerous stunts are performed for an impressionable audience, Jackass has come to be blamed for a number of injuries to youngsters mimicking those stunts throughout the country. On the Media's producer at large Mike Pesca has the story of the Jackass Backlash.
MIKE PESCA: Ever watch kids skateboarding in a park or any public place with things like stairs and railings? They seem not to mind crashing. In fact, it's almost as if the skateboarding is secondary to the real fun of falling down in a cool way. Johnny Knoxville, the main jackass on MTV's Jackass, got his start in the world of skateboarding. It would be inaccurate to call any of the stars of the most popular new show on MTV stunt men. Stunt men try to avoid injury. The jackasses have a relationship with pain like Sumo wrestlers have with fat. They celebrate it as the means to their success. That's why the somber warning that begins each episode of Jackass doesn't seem in keeping with the aesthetic of the program.
ANNOUNCER: Warning: the following show features stunts performed either by professionals or under the supervision of professionals. Accordingly, MTV and the producers must insist that no one attempt to re-create or re-enact any stunt or activity performed on this show.
MIKE PESCA: And MTV has taken to airing sound bites of Johnny Knoxville telling is loyal fans to leave the jackassing to the professionals.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I'm begging, you know, asking please don't try this at home. We're the ones who are supposed to take the hits; not the, not the people at home.
MIKE PESCA: What's behind Knoxville's plea are reports which began to surface in January of teens and pre-teens copying stunts from Jackass. After Knoxville intentionally set himself on fire and used his body as a barbecue on the show, 13 year old Jason Lind attempted the same stunt at home. MTV had a lawsuit on its hands, and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman had a cause. Dan Gerstein is Lieberman's director of communications.
DAN GERSTEIN: Mr. Lind called our Hartford office asking to speak to the Senator and they ended up connecting and he-- appealed to the Senator for his help.
MIKE PESCA: Gerstein is in the position of using media to fight media. A week after the Lind incident, Lieberman's office learned of 12 year old Thomas Hitz who had also burned himself imitating the human barbecue stunt. Gerstein pointed interested members of the media to the case.
DAN GERSTEIN: And some of the reporters have asked us whether we know of other copycat incidents, and because the-- family in Florida not only contacted us but asked us to help publicize their case to call attention to the problems with the show-- I believe we just sent the-- a copy of the letter along to Entertainment Weekly along with the correspondence that we had with MTV and the response we got from MTV.
MIKE PESCA: Entertainment Weekly's story led to great television interest because there was video footage to accompany the story. Thomas Hitz and his friends had taped the incident in the hopes that MTV would put them on the air. The Hitz family appeared on ABC's Good Morning America. ABC's 20/20 also interviewed the family and played the footage repeatedly. Three weeks later officials in Kentucky released a tape to the media showing a 16 year old boy being hit by a car in what the police said was another example of teenagers copying Jackass.
WOMAN: The video which you are about to see is very disturbing with one boy taping from a yard, another in the car, a 17 year old drives into a 16 year old as he runs to the car. Police estimate the car hits the teen going 30 to 40 miles per hour, and he lives.
MIKE PESCA: NBC's Anne Thompson was one of several reporters to air slowed-down footage of the stunt from different angles. In the discussion after Thompson's report on CNBC's Rivera Live, Geraldo Rivera and guest Marsha Clark had seen enough.
GERALDO RIVERA: Actually that video -- I don't want to see it again.
MARSHA CLARK: No! [LAUGHTER]
GERALDO RIVERA: It, it, it reminds me of what Robert Downey, Jr. just did to his life.
MIKE PESCA: The inspiration for the car stunt was later called into question when it was pointed out that Jackass never depicted anyone being intentionally hit by a car, but a Reebok commercial had featured a similar stunt. No matter. Like horror comics of the '50s and Dungeons and Dragons in the '80s, Jackass had become the symbolic and literal jumping off point for media influence-recklessness among America's young people.
MARSHA CLARK: I want to call parents; I want to call educators; I want to call every expert in the world to say what a trashy, terrible thing this is, and I want to see if some public humiliation might depress the ratings, cause you know what -- the only way this show's....
MIKE PESCA: Jackass and the grisly stunts it inspired were everywhere. Fox News, CNN, ABC, NBC --everywhere except CBS. CBS and MTV are both owned by the media conglomerate Viacom. In the past CBS has shown an eagerness to promote its sister network. CBS's Super Bowl half time show featured fans holding up signs with read I Love MTV. CBS News teamed up with MTV in reporting on the drug ecstasy, but coverage of Jackass which put MTV in a bad light was entirely absent from CBS programming. With the exception of Johnny Knoxville's appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
DAVID LETTERMAN: And then there was the, the thing where you were barbecuing yourself and then some kid did the same thing and he was injured but is he all right now, that kid?
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: Yeah, that was [...?...]-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID LETTERMAN: How old was the kid?
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I believe he's a 13 year old young man, and that was unfortunate. I hate when anyone hurts themselves, especially in that instance. We always have disclaimers on the show, verbal and written-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID LETTERMAN: Right.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: -- and every interview I've ever given I said please don't try this at home and--
DAVID LETTERMAN: Well I think the name of the show in and of itself would be the deterrent you're looking for just-- [LAUGHTER] like if I do that, I'll be a jackass! [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: Right. But he is-- [APPLAUSE]
MIKE PESCA: Morning news viewers would have seen The Today Show and Good Morning, America cover Jackass-inspired injuries on 6 different dates. The CBS Early Show never reported on the issue. Producers and executives at The Early Show would not comment on the matter, but CBS did issue a written statement which read in part: Each day editorial decisions are made about what the broadcast will cover independent of what our competitors are doing. The result is a news broadcast with journalistic independence and integrity and not one which simply, quote, "follows the crowd." If CBS were to report on Jackass, the coverage would be complicated by the lawsuit Viacom faces from the family of Jason Lind, the first boy to be injured copying Jackass. Also, broadcasting graphic footage of supposed copycat crimes carries its own potential risks. If stunts on TV can inspire imitation, why can't repeated airings of the copycats have the same effect? Mark Hitz, the father of the Florida boy, said his motivation in publicizing his son's third degree burns was so that parents across America could see how irresponsible Jackass was. When I asked him if he was worried that children would copy the videotape of his son's injury, he said no. That video showed consequences. On Jackass, he said, they just get up and go on to the next stunt. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.